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Graduate programs looks to revamp PhD

Date: March 2, 2001
By: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Archive: Campus News

A UC committee covering both the medical and main academic campuses is tackling the tough issue of how to prepare doctoral students properly without stranding them in school years longer than necessary. The goal is to refine doctoral education and to better prepare students for a variety of academic and nonacademic careers.

The Committee on Enhancing Doctoral Education invited Jody Nyquist, associate dean of the Graduate School at the University of Washington and principal investigator for the Re-envisioning the PhD project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, to campus recently in hopes of getting a national perspective on the problem.

Nyquist worked with the committee, other administrators and faculty involved in graduate education on Thursday, Feb. 15, then presented some findings from national studies.

“There is national movement to rethink components of doctoral education,” said Kathryn Gutzwiller, professor of classics and chair of the UC committee. “We have to broaden our perspectives, increase interdisciplinarity and examine the role of teaching, especially for industry.”

To examine the problem in depth, Nyquist’s team spent 18 months interviewing 375 individuals who had earned a PhD. Despite concerns over the time-to-degree and lack of effective mentoring, Nyquist said there was a common thread through all of the interviews. “I was so impressed by the passion by those who have earned the degree,” said Nyquist. “Every one said the same thing. ‘When I got my PhD…’”

Unfortunately, many of those doctoral graduates also complained about their lack of preparation. They felt too restricted in their research by their faculty advisers, unable to branch out beyond the limitations of the adviser’s interests or the latest funded research project.

Nyquist’s summarized the key problems facing graduate students in PhD programs:

* Time-to-degree: students felt uncertain when they would finish their programs.

* Teaching effectiveness: students felt they weren’t properly prepared to teach.

* Lack of mentoring.

* Uncertainties over funding.

* “The cloning factor” -- students felt forced to focus only on the interests of their research advisers.

She noted that the concerns were consistent across campuses, from the most prestigious research institutions to public, comprehensive universities. What might have shocked her the most were the drawings made by the students interviewed. They were filled with mountains, chasms and obstacles. “As a mountain climber, I was shocked at the pictures. There were no ropes, no guides, no safety nets. This is how they visualized their experience.”

Many also were concerned about their teaching ability. “I’m not sure we’ve done enough to prepare future faculty,” said Nyquist, who pointed out the Pew Charitable Trusts have stopped funding programs to support graduate education, because they haven’t seen a return. For example, roughly one-third of students who participated in a Pew-funded project to improve TA training dropped out.

Nyquist tried to reassure those who are afraid that initiatives like hers will damage the prestige of the PhD. “Nobody wants to dilute, demean, disrespect the PhD, but that’s everyone’s fear. We want to make it more than it was, not less.”

In fact, Nyquist’s research demonstrated that there is tremendous respect for those who have earned a PhD, from academia to industry and around the world. “People come from all over the world to partake in the U.S. PhD,” she noted.

Nyquist is hopeful that change will occur. Over 350 promising practices have been identified by those looking at the issue nationally. She encouraged UC’s faculty to explore those, and “steal” the best for their own use. “We’ve got the models. We just need broader use of those models.”

More information about Nyquist’s project and the national movement can be found at depts.washington.edu/envision/ .

Committee on Enhancing Doctoral Education
For more information on the committee’s work, contact any of the following individuals:

Kathryn Gutzwiller, professor of classics (committee chair), 556-1936
Bruce Ault, professor of chemistry (commitee co-chair), 556-9238
Arpi Anderson, CCM doctoral student
Iain Cartwright, associate professor of molecular genetics
Robert Conyne, professor of education and human services
Carol Deets, associate dean of nursing
Narayanan Jayaraman, head, materials science and engineering
Linda Przybyszewski, associate professor of history
Katherine Tepperman, professor of biology


 
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